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Opinion & Essays - May, 2001 Issue #81 

By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

Although lockups are sometimes necessary when dealing with adolescents with problems, sometimes they are used as a substitute for perhaps more effective ways to handle troublesome children. In the second instance, the main value of a lockup is for administrative and economic convenience, rather than what might be best for the child. 

In a country like the USA, so deeply aligned with individual freedoms and the right of an individual to choose, locking up anyone, for whatever reason, is a very serious matter. Especially in this country, which values freedom as an ideal, the very act of locking someone up is likely to have profound and negative reactions on the person being locked up. This in part is due to the suspicious attitudes of the adults working with people residing in lockups; it is unlikely the children will not notice. Despite these possible negative consequences, there does seem to be two valid reasons for putting a child in a locked facility. 

The first justification for a “lockup” is based on the philosophy of the juvenile justice system. That is, if a child is anti- social, he/she must be contained to both ensure he/she gets the help needed, and to protect society from further anti-social acts. The second justification is for therapeutic reasons. That is, a child who has a pathology that overwhelms any possible self-control may need to be “locked up” in order to avoid the child becoming a danger to himself or others. Actually, in both cases, a lockup can be justified.

However, in my experience with a wide variety of schools and programs for struggling teens, it seems kids are put into locked situations more often than the above two reasons would indicate to be necessary. This practice has been going on for some time. This is demonstrated by the fact that one of the important goals and justifications for the development of Emotional Growth schools and programs in the seventies and eighties was to find a way to provide help for these children without locking them up. 

These Emotional Growth schools and programs demonstrated that many out-of-control children do not need to be forced to stay in the program by locking them up. They instead provided these children with the help they need by developing highly structured whole-child schools with a very high staff-student ratio, usually about one staff working directly with every two or three students. This ratio enabled staff to keep an eye on things, making it much harder for children to develop an underground negative sub-culture or make arrangements for running away. The higher staff to student ratio also made it easier to establish a program that is based on teaching ways to develop positive relationships. The lower the ratio of staff to students, the less likely any given student will really develop a positive relationship with a staff member. 

The second thing Emotional Growth Schools and Programs did was to locate in remote areas. Again, lockups were not necessary to keep many of these children from running away if they were a long ways from towns, cities or major highways. 

Emotional Growth Schools and Programs such as CEDU and Cascade School were very successful in demonstrating they could successfully work with many children whose other alternatives would have been either a juvenile justice or therapeutic locked facility. Since Emotional Growth Schools and Programs demonstrated that there are viable and successful alternatives to locking a child up, why would any program lock up any children except those who are violent or unable to control their serious pathology? 

Cost is one reason. A locked facility can adequately control their population with fewer staff. Since staff is the major expense, any school or program that needs fewer staff can reduce the program costs that are passed on to the parents. The resulting lower prices place that school or program in a competitive position, especially with parents who are basing their selection primarily on financial considerations. 

Availability of staff is another reason. It is challenging enough to find competent staff to work with these difficult children. It is considerably more demanding to convince staff to move to the remote and rural areas in which many Emotional Growth Schools and Programs are located. Many competent prospective staff consider living in a rural area a hardship. However, it would be easier to attract good staff if the facility were located closer to a city, which can be more easily accomplished by establishing a lockup program. 

Community relations are another reason. A child that runs away can do things that would create a public relations nightmare, and perhaps get the authorities down on a school or program. A lockup is insurance against such an event ever occurring. 

In essence, there are two reasons to lockup a child in a program. One is to ensure that child is kept from posing a danger to self or others. The second justification for locking up a child is as a means to control behavior. The first reason is based on a child’s needs; the second is based on considerations other than a child’s best interests. 

When a parent is considering a program that locks up children, the first question to ask is whether their child actually needs to be locked up in order to avoid hurting himself or others. If the child is just acting out and is not really a danger, or if the pathology is not severe enough to indicate the presence of danger to the child or others, then locking the child up might be unnecessary and perhaps damaging. If a child can be helped without being locked up, the parent should continue looking until they find a program that contains children by alternatives to a lockup, such as a remote location and high staff ratio. This still leaves plenty of choices. Since the network of private emotional growth schools and programs has mushroomed in the last twenty years, there are many schools and programs from which to choose that can contain children without locking them up. 

This article copyright © 1999-2001, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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